Alain LaederachLearning Something No One's Ever Known Before
Iowa State UniversityAmes, IA
Alain Laederach is really jazzed by the thrill of scientific discovery. He knew from a young age that science was going to be the path for him. ''I was very excited by the discovery of new things - explaining things as they are in the world.'' Currently a postdoc in the Department of Genetics at Stanford University, Alain completed his PhD at Iowa State University's Bioinformatics and Computational Biology IGERT in 2003. He co-majored in Bioinformatics, Computational Biology and Chemical Engineering and wrote his dissertation on ''Computational approaches to molecular recognition: From carbohydrates to kinases.''
Working with two main professors, Alain studied ways in which different molecules recognize each other. His research involved using structural modeling to predict how molecules - such as certain carbohydrates and proteins - will interact. ''There are specific modeling techniques that allow you to see and understand the architecture of a molecule,'' he explains. ''You can then predict how they'll interact, whether they'll attach onto each other -- whether they'll bind together.''
His work focused on fundamental aspects of molecular recognition, developing methods that could later be applied in ways that he had not previously imagined. He published research on enzymes that are used in the production of high fructose corn syrup from starch, and was subsequently contacted by the National Jewish Medical Research Center in Colorado. A postdoc at the Research Center saw an application for Alain's research to his work on immune response in the lungs, which is dependent on protein-carbohydrate interactions. Proteins in the lung participate in recognition of pathogens and will tag them for the immune system to destroy. Immunogenerative disease is caused when these surfactant proteins become too active, destroying other types of molecules. Drugs could potentially be designed to introduce a foreign molecule that will inhibit interaction between two proteins.
''You never know where your fundamental research will lead,'' says Alain. ''We discovered that a lot of the computational techniques we had developed to study carbohydrates had significant applications in the medical field as well.''
Peter Reilly, professor of chemical engineering and one of Alain's major professors at Iowa State, considers Alain to be the ideal IGERT student. ''While he was here, he did topnotch research in three separate areas,'' Reilly says. ''He fit the IGERT program perfectly. When it came time for him to graduate we put him up for the top grad student prize - the Zaffarano Prize - and stressed that he worked in three disciplines for three different people.'' Alain's interdisciplinary capabilities and his already distinguished publication record won him the prize, considered the most prestigious for PhD students at Iowa State.
Alain is a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland. ''My parents are Swiss but I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland,'' he says. ''My father worked for the World Bank.'' Growing up near Washington DC contributed to his interest in science. ''My parents had friends who worked for the National Institutes of Health. I used to visit the labs at NIH...I was fascinated with the culture of scientific research.''
Although he chose an engineering approach as an undergraduate - his diploma from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland is in Chemical Engineering - he moved back into the life sciences in graduate school because of the aspect of discovery. ''It is very satisfying and exciting to know you're learning something no one's ever known before!'' he says.
Alain has limited mobility in his limbs due to a congenital disability, and uses an electric three-wheeled scooter to travel longer distances. That doesn't prevent him from indulging his many extracurricular interests, which include playing the French horn, building and flying model airplanes, skiing, sailing and traveling. ''Now that my parents have retired, they live in France on the Swiss border. I love to visit them - skiing, sailing, mountains, lakes...'' He's enthusiastic about a program at Stanford that mixes science and music - scientists are matched up with music professors who give them private music lessons, for very little charge. ''They have very generous donors who believe that scientists should get out of the lab and be well rounded in life,'' he explains.
When asked what makes Alain such a successful student, Peter Reilly doesn't hesitate. ''His hard work, and his personality to do the work. He's one of the best I've ever had. He'll be a big success wherever he goes.''
And where will that be? Alain plans to spend at least one more year as a postdoc in the applied computational lab at Stanford, where he has funding as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation fellow to work on RNA structure and detailed molecular interactions. Then he expects he'll look for a faculty post somewhere in the U.S. He is very positive as he reflects on his IGERT experience. ''It allowed me to be truly interdisciplinary. I met and collaborated with many different people at the conferences I attended, and I was never confined to the research interest of just one professor,'' he says. ''It was extremely beneficial to my career.''
To learn more about the Iowa State NSF IGERT program, ''Computational Molecular Biology,'' www.bioinformatics.iastate.edu/IGERT/."
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